Market Matters Blog

Has Proposed Rail Safety Act Been Stopped in Its Tracks?

Mary Kennedy
By  Mary Kennedy , DTN Basis Analyst
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As train derailments continue to be in the news, the Rail Safety Act of 2023, introduced one month ago, is still in limbo. The most recent derailment with hazardous cars happened in Raymond, Minnesota, when 22 cars of a BNSF train derailed March 30, with four containing ethanol that ruptured and caught fire. Other cars that derailed contained corn syrup. Pictured is the aftermath of the derailment. (Photo courtesy Macy Moore)

The Rail Safety Act of 2023 was introduced in the Senate on March 1, 2023. Since that date, there was a hearing to discuss the act, but, so far, it has not moved forward in the Senate.

According to The Hill, the Senate Republicans are not yet on board with the bipartisan proposal.

"We'll take a look at what's being proposed, but an immediate quick response heavy on regulation needs to be thoughtful and targeted," Sen. John Thune, S.D., the No. 2 Senate Republican, told The Hill. "Let's define the problem. Let's figure out what the solutions are and if there are things we need to fix, we'll fix them."

On March 23, U.S. Senator Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., chair of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, convened a full committee Executive Session, noted the committee website. "The Committee will hear testimony regarding Norfolk Southern's safety record and how the Feb. 3, 2023, derailment and the controlled burn of vinyl chloride impacted the East Palestine, Ohio, community. Witnesses will also discuss suggestions for how to improve the safety of the nation's rail network, hazardous materials transportation safety and emergency response, including the provisions of S. 576, the Railway Safety Act of 2023."

Clyde Whitaker, Ohio State Legislative Director for SMART Transportation Division, testified at the hearing saying, "This increase in derailments is what happens when you cut 30% of your workforce in less than a decade, reduce training or outsource work across every rail craft, and run longer, heavier trains that are harder to control. This is what Precision Scheduled Railroading (PSR) looks like. The railroads find every way they can cut costs so they can make an extra dollar. No matter the cost to safety. The railroads simply refuse to change themselves. You can tell because they are actively opposing the bipartisan rail safety legislation proposed by Senators Vance and Brown."

Ian Jefferies, president and CEO Association of American Railroads (AAR), testified, "Railroads are disappointed that some are using the East Palestine accident to push for policy changes that have little or nothing to do with rail safety and, if enacted previously, would not have prevented the accident or made railroads safer. Railroads also respectfully urge policymakers to remember that laws and regulations, however well intended, that place excessive and unnecessary operational burdens on railroads would distort competition in the freight transportation marketplace and divert freight from railroads to less safe alternatives. If this happened, overall transportation safety would be reduced, not enhanced."


If you think back to the rail contract that was put in place in December 2022, there was no provision included on the two-person crew issue that had been asked for by the rail unions.

The Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), on July 28, 2022, announced a proposed rule requiring a minimum of two train crewmembers for over-the-road railroad operations. On Dec. 14, 2022, the FRA held a hearing on the proposed rule and, as of this writing, that rule has not been made into law. Existing FRA regulations do not mandate minimum crew staffing requirements.

The AAR notes that, "Efforts to require at least two-person crews, including via regulation, lack a safety justification; ignore the decades of safe and successful use of single-person crews at some U.S. freight railroads and in passenger and freight rail systems throughout the world; upend meaningful collective bargaining and undermine the rail industry's ability to compete against less climate-friendly forms of transportation."

In his March 23 testimony, Whitaker said, "As we sit here today, the railroads are attempting to eliminate the conductor from the cab of the locomotive. They want you to believe that technology is capable of replacing the role of the conductor, and that the conductor would be better served in a remote, ground-based role. Nothing can be further from the truth. No technology is going to safely replace the role of the conductor in the cab of a locomotive.

"We need meaningful change. States -- both Democratic and Republican -- are stepping up and passing rail safety legislation. Many of them, including Republican states like Arizona and Wisconsin, have passed two-person crew requirements. Just last week, the Republican-led Ohio State House passed a two-person crew requirement. Two-person crew is a commonsense safety measure that most Americans support regardless of political party. The only entity opposing it is the rail industry because it will prevent them from cutting costs and making even more money."

On March 23, Norfolk Southern and the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers -- Transportation Division (SMART-TD), announced on the Norfolk Southern website that they are discontinuing formal negotiations regarding conductor redeployment to focus their efforts on implementing other immediate quality-of-life improvements for their employees.

"Norfolk Southern is committed to working with labor partners, including SMART-TD, to identify and negotiate benefits that will have a meaningful impact on our employees' quality of life," said Wai Wong, vice president, Labor Relations at Norfolk Southern. "While redeployment of conductors to ground-based shift work will provide more predictable jobs and minimize time away from home, there are a number of other priorities that our labor partners would like to address, and we are committed to working together to make immediate progress."

On March 25, the Union Pacific Railroad said on their website that "UP reached a tentative crew consist agreement (one conductor/foreman and one brakeman/helper), with General Committee 953, part of its largest union, The International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation Workers (SMART-TD). The proposed agreement makes no changes to the current conductor position staffing each train as part of a two-person crew, provides long-term job protection to current employees and gives the railroad greater flexibility to deploy brake or switch persons to work either in or outside the yard. The proposed agreement, if ratified, closes Union Pacific's current Section 6 Notice to redeploy conductors on this committee."

The two-person crew issue could be solved quickly if the FRA would stop stalling and pass the proposed rule that is now nine months old. The Ohio derailment was proof that it is a safety necessity as that crew applied handbrakes to the two railcars at the head of the train, uncoupled the head-end locomotives, and moved the locomotives about 1 mile from the uncoupled railcar according to the NTSB. This was all done by the two crew members and a trainee.

Link to all the testimony at the hearing on March 23:…

Information on the Rail Safety Act of 2023:…

AAR fact sheet on two-person crew Positive Train Control:…

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